In which Emily becomes the family photographer

It’s been a while, blog! My excuse is that my camera was not working for a while, something that I couldn’t get fixed until I went to Cape Town, which happened last month, and now I have some pictures, making the whole blog endeavor worthwhile. So here we are! Thanks for sticking with me, folks. 

For my re-debut, I thought I’d share something that happened to me last week. My loyal counterpart, Mapoloko, and I are in the final stages of a chicken coop-construction project. Last Tuesday morning, we agreed to meet at her house to review a quotation. Just before I left to walk to her house she called and asked me to bring my camera. She didn’t say why, but I had told her that I had gotten it repaired in Cape Town so I figured she just wanted an impromptu photo shoot. Basotho LOVE having their picture taken, especially the kids, so this was not out of the ordinary.

Mapoloko and I finished our business pretty quickly, after which I asked her what she wanted my camera for. “It is the baby’s birthday!” she said. By way of explanation, Mapoloko’s toddler grandson has been living with her while her daughter finishes university. This little boy is very beloved by his family, as you can see in the birthday party pics I took:

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The birthday boy!

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Nkhonno (grandmother) getting the kids in line

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Cutting that cake

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The moms put frosting on all the kids’ faces. They were quite nonplussed

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Contemplating his lollipop

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Mapoloko and her daughter

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The mom and the baby

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Uncle helping his nephew with his shoe

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Mapoloko loves kids!

In which Emily gets really grassroots

Greetings readers! First of all, here is an awesome video about PC Lesotho that some PCVs made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BrhwW2sIec&feature=youtu.be

Down to business. I would like to dedicate this blog entry to telling you all about one of my secondary projects, Community Innovative Skills Program. As a PCV I have a primary assignment through my host organization, but the work for this hardly fills a work week so I am expected to find some secondary projects in my community.

After being back at site for about a month, this secondary project literally came knocking at my door. Or rather, the project manager and now my counterpart, ‘M’e Puseletso, came knocking at my door. She told me that she had worked with a PCV who lived in a nearby village a few years ago, and that Peace Corps had directed her to me when she inquired if there was anyone in the area currently. I was thrilled to be sought out, and we started working together right off the bat.

Community Innovative Skills Program, or CISP, is a small center where orphans, vulnerable children, and their care-givers will be instructed in employable skills like sewing and baking. As Volunteers we describe projects like CISP as “super grassroots” because it has no funding from NGOs or donors. My work for CISP consists of spending one day a week with Puseletso pounding pavement in town asking for community donations in order to get the resources we need to open. Once classes are up-and-running, CISP will operate on dues paid by the students and the income generated by selling things the students make. Some of the products will be embroidered pillowcases, dresses, stuffed animal dogs, and muffins.

As with all fundraising, there are ups and downs. Sometimes business-owners agree to do things like sponsor students, provide equipment from their stock, or fund the purchase of materials. Sometimes they refuse. Sometimes there are other setbacks, like when an oven was donated, but we were not able to get a truck to transport it to the center for months. Another time a shop owner agreed to donate a cabinet, but when we went to collect it his shop had been robbed the night before and he had no stock left.

What is most interesting to me is that almost every time we explain our organization to someone, they ask if an orphan they live with or know can join. The proportion of children in Lesotho who are orphans is unbelievable high compared to the U.S.

Puseletso has big dreams for CISP. She sees us renting more rooms, expanding to teach agriculture, hospitality, and other skills. She wants to get a truck so that we can instruct disabled people in the community who cannot leave their homes. She wants to start a scholarship fund for orphans at the local primary schools so they can go on to high school (primary school is free in Lesotho but high school is not). She wants to throw a Christmas party for the students and care-givers. She has even talked about running workshops to train instructors in remote villages. They are all excellent ideas, and I do my best to encourage her while remaining realistic of our capabilities.

Working with Puseletso is always eventful. She is probably the most energetic person I’ve ever met, especially in Lesotho where the pace of life is comparably slow. She is passionate about the work, though, so all of that energy is channeled into something wonderful for the community. She is also something of a hustler. She is always sewing things like seshoeshoe (traditional dresses) and school uniforms for someone in the village in addition to selling something or other out of her handbag. One time it was Tupperware. Another it was fish and chips. Lately it’s been herbal tea. It’s fascinating seeing her get random people on the street to buy tea from her. And they always do! Also, every time we get in a taxi she tells the driver that we only have M5, even though taxi rides cost M6 in Mohale’s Hoek. If they refuse, she berates them about the noble work we’re doing until they are guilted into giving us a ride. She’s incredible.

CISP is opening up for classes soon, and I’m very excited to see the work we’ve been doing put to some use. I will be teaching some classes in basic business skills and health, Puseletso will be teaching sewing, and another volunteer teacher will teach cooking and baking. We’ve got about 20 students on the roster. Soon these kids will be able to support themselves!

Here’s a picture of Puseletso with some rugs that were donated by a local hardware store (NB: Basotho don’t usually smile in pictures for unknown reasons):

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In which Emily makes some magic happen

It’s been about a month, and I have covered some ground! The two biggest things that occurred since last writing are GRS and vacation.

GRS!

What is GRS? It stands for Grassroot Soccer, and it is an organization based out of Cape Town that teaches youth about important issues like gender equality, HIV prevention, and more through soccer.  GRS is a wonderful partner to Peace Corps, and supports PCVs by providing training in how to teach GRS curricula.  In August I brought a Masotho friend of mine named Sketchaz to the GRS workshop to learn the GRS SKILLZ Girl curriculum.  SKILLZ Girl is the GRS program that teaches girls about gender equality. Soccer is very popular in Lesotho but traditionally male-dominated, so combining soccer practice with life skills lessons can be empowering to young women. I invited Sketchaz to be my GRS counterpart because she, like me, is a young volunteer passionate about social issues facing Basotho youth. Sketchaz was a rock star at the workshop, as expected, and this week we embark on our first 12-week intervention with a group of 20 high school girls.

GRS is all about having fun and high energy. Here are some pictures of us from the workshop:

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The group doing a ‘kilo’, which is a personalized cheer

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Being dramatical in a skit about abstinence

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Cheering for our team

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Doing an energizer activity

Showing off my soccer skillz

Showing off my soccer skillz

The following week I jetted off (and by jetted off I mean rode in a taxi for 8 hours, then took an overnight bus) to Cape Town for vacation.  After some usual travel snafus I met up with my good friend Susanna to head up to McGregor, South Africa to attend the McGregor Poetry Festival. I am a fan of poetry but had never listened to so much in such a short amount of time, and never in such a picturesque setting.  McGregor is in the wine lands just to the north of Cape Town, and generally considered an artists’ colony.  Susanna and I heard lots of different poetry, some in English, some in Afrikaans, some in Zulu, in gardens, an old church, a cozy library, and other visually stunning locations.  Being in South Africa feels a bit like returning to America because of how modern everything is.  That being said, it definitely has its own flavor and mix of cultures.

Me in McGregor

Me in McGregor

In which Emily is very much in-demand

Khotsong!

Since writing last, my work pace has picked up quite a bit! In July my counterpart and I attended a pitso, which is the equivalent of a town meeting that is called by the chief. At this pitso my counterpart introduced me to the village and announced that I would be happy to work on any community project as an advisor. This was a great experience as now most people in my village know why I am there, know that I’m not an English teacher, and best of all know my name and can stop calling me Ausi Lekhooa (White Girl). The chief of my village speaks zero English but has said some very kind things to me through translators, basically that he appreciates my presence and commitment to the village. The result of this pitso has been a parade of groups of villagers dropping by my place and requesting help with a variety of projects. I am endeavoring to become an expert in everything from beekeeping to mushroom-growing to selling handicrafts in order to be of use. It’s exciting to be so popular in my village and have work to do; now the challenge is prioritizing and setting realistic expectations.

In other news, last week PC Lesotho had an All-Volunteer Conference in which all 80+ PCVs came together, attended a development panel, had group discussions, and, most importantly, put on a talent show. Here’s me and The Band performing that crowd-favorite, “Wagon Wheel”:

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I’ve started working with a local org that offers orphans and their care-givers sewing training. One of the crafts they make are these adorable stuffed animal dogs out of traditional seshoeshoe fabric. The sales keep the training program in business and help the care-givers support their families. My counterpart calls them “puppies”. Here is one of the puppies I sold at All-Vol, sporting another volunteer’s IGA handicraft product, seshoeshoe bowtie, or bowshoeshoe:

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Bowshoeshoe are available on Etsy here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/BowShoeshoe. If you are interested in ordering a puppy, leave a comment below!

Here you can see me in the audience of a skills-sharing session about doing youth camps with very limited resources:

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Camps on life skills and gender equality are a popular PC project, but often require sponsorship by businesses or grant money in order to pay for food, chaperones, and other materials, making it a major endeavor for the PCV and counterpart. Here, PCV Superstar Beth shared her experience putting on a day camp in her village with zero sponsorship/outside financial support.

Lastly, here is a picture of the motley crew of PCVs that came together to celebrate American Independence Day, or 4th of Ju-braai, as I dubbed it (braai is South African BBQ):

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Explaining Independence Day to Basotho is fun because Lesotho was also a British colony for ~75 years. We had a wonderfully multi-cultural evening that included potluck food, beer pong, and explaining Cards Against Humanity to Basotho. Looking forward to Lesotho Independence Day on October 4th!

One more thing: I am working on a project with PC Lesotho’s Diversity Committee to make lesson plans about diversity in the US. We are collecting photos and information about a range of people. The lesson is going to show students different pictures of people, let them make assumptions, and then show them how diverse each person is. The idea is to break some stereotypes about Americans. We won’t use all the profiles, but are trying to get as much diversity as possible. If you can help or get someone else you know to help, I would really appreciate it!

I need a picture (of just you) and the answers to the following (feel free to leave any of them blank):

Name:
Age:
Gender:
Hometown:
Ethnicity:
Job:
Education:
Marriage Status:
Children:
Religion:
Favorite musical artist/song:
Favorite sport:
Favorite food (and description, if necessary):
Fun fact:

Email me your answers and photo if you’d like to participate or have any questions/suggestions: eabrown204@gmail.com.

That’s most of what I’ve been up to in the past month and a half. That, and the grant for the chicken coop project I mentioned last time. The next few weeks hold another training, this one in Grassroots Soccer, vacation to the McGregor Poetry Festival near Cape Town, and hopefully getting this grant submitted and approved. Thanks for reading!

In which Emily gets back in the game

It’s official! I have been re-sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho. My flight back over was a best possible scenario in that all the seats in my row were empty so I even got to LAY DOWN and sleep (yes!). After arriving I was picked up and brought to the PC office in Maseru where I checked in with various PC staff, then proceeded to the guesthouse to sleep off some jet lag. The next day PC drove me down to my site for a triumphant return. My room was just as I left it, but clean (my counterpart snuck in the day before to sweep, dust, and wax the floor. She’s a saint.). Unfortunately one of my four host-nuns was transferred to a different convent in my absence, but I found the other three as warmly welcoming as ever. After saying hi to them I trotted down to the school to find my counterpart. I found her in the library, where we had a brief hug-fest and exclaimed over and over how happy we were to see each other.

About a week and a half in our Country Director Wendy stopped by my camp town to officially swear me back in. Since my medical separation meant I closed my service (or COS-ed), this is technically a brand new term of service. A few PCVs from nearby came to witness this inauspicious occasion in a heartwarming show of support. I did repeat one sentence incorrectly, but hey so did Obama. Swearing in is a little strange because the oath we take is the same oath used for every government position, from a Senator to a soldier. So there isn’t anything about peace, only about protecting the Constitution from “all enemies, foreign and domestic”. In any case, I’ve said it, I’ve signed it, and now I’m officially back.

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This week my counterpart and I attended a PC workshop about designing and implementing a project. We are looking forward to realizing the project we first decided on when I arrived last year, which is a poultry project to support the orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) that attend the primary school at my site. My training group completed this workshop in February, so I went with a group of Education volunteers that swore in shortly after I left. It was an opportunity to get to know the PCVs in that group, and it turns out I’ve got some new great new neighbors to hang out with!

Returning to Lesotho feels wonderful. It’s strange that returning home to America felt so unsettling and unfair, whereas returning to this incredibly foreign land felt like I was righting a wrong in the universe. As before, day-to-day things move slowly as far as work goes, but overall my work feels cut out for me. Also as before, there are some amazing people in this country, both Basotho and American, and I’m looking forward to spending the next eighteen months working with them.

In which Emily gets cleared for lift-off

Greetings concerned citizens!

Thanks for tuning back in for the next chapter in the bizarre story of my life. When we last left it, I had been medically separated, looking at five more months stateside in order to finish my course of medication. Medical clearance took longer than expected (however this delay itself was expected, so there you go) and now, after one month of Medevac and six months of Medically Separated, RPCV civilian life, I have been cleared, reinstated, and am on my way back to the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. I leave on Tuesday morning for two days of travel, after which I will have to swear-in, then head back to the ranch at my old site.

I am overjoyed that my host organization is willing to take me back, that I am able to resume my service, and that all this waiting around will now pay off. Multiple people have expressed surprise that I am still going back, after so much time has passed. The things is, the longer the wait got, the more urgent it was that I do go back. Otherwise, the five months I spent of preparation in country, plus the subsequent seven months of healing/waiting around would have been for nothing. Maybe not exactly nothing, but far short of the goals I set for my PC service. Although I am technically an official RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer), it feels fraudulent to call myself one when my time at site totaled to a mere handful of weeks and zero projects completed. In short, the past year is meaningful only if included in a longer narrative in which I return and build on the foundation made last year.

If I wasn’t going to return to Lesotho after being Med-Sepped, I would have made different moves from the get-go in December, tossing in the veritable towel and moving on. I have post-Peace Corps goals, namely law school, that will now themselves be delayed with this delay in my PC service. But I went in to PC with more than an inkling to do good. I did and do hold the conviction that serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer is a foundation that I will build the rest of my career on. It is a life-long dream, and, honestly, I am a very stubborn person. There was no question in my mind that I would reinstate in December, and there has been no question in my mind since.

That is not to say that it has been easy. It is difficult to convey how frustrating it has been, trying to plan my life when I had no inkling of how much time I would have left until my return to Lesotho. That, plus there was zero guidance from any quarter. I scoured the internet looking for an RPCV with a story like mine. None presented themselves. The doctors I saw thought I was in America on vacation when I saw them in November, and when I went for follow-ups in the spring they thought that I had gone back to Lesotho in the meantime. PC HQ was surprised when I told them I had gotten a job during my separation. I wouldn’t hear from the Office of Medical Services for weeks at a time, then they would send me instructions for tasks I had already completed. I struggled to get hired with a sketchy resume and vague plans for the future. I watched as my training group has gone through the steps of service, achievements and challenges alike, vacations, trainings, accomplishments of all kinds, while I tread water in my parent’s basement. It’s very possible that the most difficult part of my service will be the months I spent not in service.

I consider myself lucky, though. When I was sick, I had a wonderful home to return to, and health insurance to pay for the care I needed. In the end, I was medically cleared. I am beyond excited to return and get going with the team at my host org. And I have a new appreciation for how unpredictable life is, how important it is to take opportunities when they are presented, and what a privilege it is to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. However frustrating it has been working within the bureaucracy of Peace Corps, they offer the chance to have a truly unique and beneficial perspective on the world.

That’s all I’ll bombard you with for now. Next time I write, I’ll be in Africa!

In which Emily gets medevaced

Medevac is short for Medical Evacuation. I am currently on medevac due to bilateral pulmonary emboli. For those of you who aren’t doctors, a CT-scan found a couple of blood clots in my lungs. After getting pneumonia twice in a row the astute Peace Corps Medical Officers who act as our in-service doctors ordered a scan of my lungs to see what was up. Lo, blood clots. After a strange week of being hospitalized in Bloemfontein, then Maseru, I was informed that pulmonary embolism requires medevac and that I would be taking an unexpected journey back home. After returning to site for a few days to pack up my things (and attend a delightful Halloween soiree with some PCVs), I hopped on a 17-hour flight direct from Joburg to Atlanta, then on home to La Guardia. Since I’m from an area with sufficiently close medical care, PC allowed me to medevac to my “home of record” in good ol’ Essex, CT. The past few weeks have been spent visiting a variety of specialists to understand why exactly I got these blood clots, as a 23-year old non-smoker with no family history of heart disease or blood disorders. The American doctors came to the same conclusion that the Bloem doctor did, which is that I am more sensitive to estrogen than most women, so the combination of taking birth control pills with the long flight over to Lesotho in June caused clots to form in my legs which over time floated into my lungs, subsequently making them vulnerable to infection like pneumonia. What is strange is that being in Lesotho really had nothing to do with my illness, it was just a converging of circumstances that ended in me being sent home.

The only symptoms I experienced other than a slight decrease in lung capacity were from the bouts of pneumonia, so I was not in any pain or discomfort throughout the hospitalizations or medevac.  The treatment is to a) permanently avoid clotting risk-factors like smoking, taking any form of hormones, or sitting down for extended car trips or plane rides (inconvenient but simple enough) and b) after having a blood clot one has to take blood thinning medication (anticoagulants) for an extended period of time in order to assure that it does not happen again. I have been prescribed a fairly new drug that as I understand is much easier to be on than the traditional stuff and will be taking it for a total of six months. So what next? The kicker is that convenient as this new drug is, and healthy as I feel, PC will not be able to clear me to return until I am off the blood thinner. Blood thinners do just what the name says, so I get to wear a cool Medic-Alert bracelet because I bleed/bruise more easily than I normally would. This means that if I get in a car accident, or some similar scenario, I will bleed quicker than normal and would need emergency care, again, quicker than normal. Unfortunately Lesotho does not have the emergency-response services that I would need as a person on anticoagulants. Medevac lasts maximum 45 days, so in a week and a half I will be Medically Separated. Medical Separation is a form of Early Termination, which in PC-speak means that my service will be ended early. Fortunately my medical status will change in less than a year which is within the time limit to ‘reinstate,’ meaning I can pick up where I left off in Lesotho without reapplying or going through training again. I will have to start my two years of service over, but I am fortunate in that I will most likely get to return to the same site and get going on the projects that my counterpart and I had only just started to work on when I left. If you’re like my mother and wondering a) am I mad at the Peace Corps? b) am I mad at birth control pills? c) am I really going back? d) am I a crazy person? then I can tell you that a) No, I understand the reason for my separation and agree that it would be risky, frustrating as it might be b) No, birth control pills are a wonderful thing and improve the quality of many lives for a variety of reasons, I am just unlucky in my body chemistry in this instance c) Yes, yes, a hundred times yes. If I’ve learned anything from my five months it’s been that Peace Corps is exactly what I’m supposed to do at this stage in my life, and I am not going to let this random hiccup take away what still is an amazing opportunity for me, and d) Ugh probably.

For now I’m looking for jobs, hoping to find something meaningful, productive, and income-earning to do during the next ~5 months. I probably won’t be blogging again until I’m at least on my way back to Lesotho (unless I get a demand of people hankering to hear about my job-search/unemployed life style), probably early May-ish. Thanks for reading thus far, and maybe I’ll see you around!